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Always a ‘Chinese city’? Uncovering Hong Kong’s past as an international frontier town

We are told Hong Kong ‘has always been a Chinese city’. But let’s seek truth from facts. If we’re talking about the people, who actually make up the population, then Hong Kong was only solely Chinese before it was anywhere near being a city.

When foreign traders first used the deep, safe harbour of Hong Kong in the 1830s — before the first Opium War, followed by the Treaty of Nanking of 1842 that ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity — the entirely Chinese population amounted to a few thousand.

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They were fishermen, farmers, perhaps pirates. There was no city, nothing that any Hong Kong person today would recognise as their place.

The two leading groups of buyers in Hong Kong’s first land auction, in the summer of 1841, were Scots, and Parsee. The latter were Zoroastrians hailing originally from Persia (now Iran), who joined the Canton trade from their homes in Bombay.

Actively collaborating in this new settlement were of course some Chinese but, at that point, only those who had nothing left to lose in Canton, mostly Tanka boatmen who had helped the British win the Opium War. For the first decade or more of Hong Kong the city, so-called ‘respectable Chinese’ were absent from the chaotic frontier town that was Hong Kong.

Instead, there were all sorts of other people, brought here by the vital global trading routes through South and South East Asia. Their descendants are among the longest-staying families of Hong Kong today.

Here’s the description from one visitor in the 1840s, Benjamin Lincoln Ball, who was impressed by the city and rather liked the night-life too:

“in the central part of the Chinese quarter… are a number of small sailor taverns, every evening lively with the fiddle, drum, tambourine and dancing. Looking in at the door of the front room, if the screen is removed, can be discovered a party of sailors, of all nations — black and white — with a sprinkling of English and Ceylon soldiers from the garrison, enjoying themselves after their own fashion…”

But what most impressed him was the rich human tapestry:

“Almost every nation is represented here, though there are only a few of each. I can enumerate with the English, American and Chinese, the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Persians, Bengalese, Javanese, and Manilla Indians [sic], the German, Italian, Russian, Danish, Swiss, Dutch, Belgian, Pole, and the Arab, Turk, Armenian, Tartar, Siamese, African, and South American.”

Less than 15 years later, the American Reverend Lucius Wheeler, was just as excited. Victoria, as Hong Kong city was then called, was ‘one of the most unique and beautiful of oriental cities.’ He had to admit that the missionary project was not going anywhere near as well as the commercial. But the good Reverend was thrilled by the human parade, its colour and variety, the sheer exotic cosmopolitan thrill of it all.

American Reverend Lucius Wheeler

American Reverend Lucius Wheeler.

This place was neither simply Chinese nor British but much more:

“The population of Victoria includes representatives from many parts of the world — English, American, French, Portuguese, Indian, Malay, Arabian, and Persian… a vast tide of human life is seen pouring through…

“There are people of almost every nationality and colour, in costumes odd, antique, and many-hued: on foot, on horseback, in sedan chairs, in phaetons; here and there a military or naval officer, proudly bearing the insignia of his rank, with groups of common soldiers and jolly jack-tars sauntering in and out of the curiosity shops, or bantering with fruit-venders; now and then a foreign lady, dressed a la Parisienne, riding in an open carriage, or in her chair, borne by men in uniform; some hurrying to and fro, as if pursuing important business engagements, some walking leisurely, with cane in hand; haughty Parsees, worshipers of the sun, sporting the Persian habit, and distinguished by their tall glazed hats; half-naked coolies, carrying heavy burdens with their bamboo poles, in contrast with the Celestial gentry, who appear in long robes, gracefully waving the ever-present fan; and native women in gay apparel, attracting public attention by their various arts…

“Over all this strange scene, more heterogeneous and fantastic than perhaps any other city in the world can present, the air is resonant with the jargon of many languages, the twang of the banjo, the song of the minstrel, the indescribable plaint and whoop of burden bearers, the cries of men hawking their wars, the din of countless rattle-boxes, and the rush of wheels — sounds mellifluous, discordant and ear splitting.”

diversity

File photo: Pexels.

Not ‘always Chinese’ by any means, but quite a fun start for this town of ours.

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Always a 'Chinese city'? Uncovering Hong Kong's past as an international frontier town